Sitting in the dark, holding your breath throughout Alfonso Cuarón’s terrifying, beautiful “Gravity,” it can seem like the film simply spun up at you out of the void; it’s a work of such precision and simplicity that it almost feels like it came out of nowhere. But unlike, say, a sliver of space debris that glints in the distance a moment before hurtling in to wreak silent destruction on your space station, Cuarón’s hugely anticipated film (review here) not only had a gestation period of unforeseen length, but even back at concept stage it had its influences and its inspirations. So while it certainly feels unlike anything you’ve quite seen before, in realizing his singular vision, Cuarón in fact refers to and borrows from several cinematic forebears, and, after the fact, we can see not only their imprint on the finished film, but also its kinship with several other titles.
So we’ve collected ten films here: five of them have been namechecked by Cuarón directly (here and here) as inspirations for “Gravity,” and the other five are titles we chose for their thematic or tonal similarities. So whether you’re looking to get yourself in the mood for a screening this opening weekend, or you want to decompress after watching it with a DVD that occupies something of the same universe, any or all of the following ten titles can throw a new light on what will be one of your most extraordinary viewing experiences of the year.
Alfonso Cuarón's 5
“A Man Escaped” (1956)
Well, if you’re going to namecheck a film as an inspiration, may as well make it a masterpiece. Robert Bresson’s astoundingly authentic recreation of the real-life story of a French Resistance fighter’s incarceration in a Nazi-run prison and his complex escape plan, may differ completely from “Gravity” in terms of location, time period and a hundred other surface details, but spiritually the kinship is undeniably close. Loneliness and looming despair eat away at the edges of both films; while Bullock’s Ryan Stone may be in or out of radio contact with earth, Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) is enclosed in a tiny cell with only occasional communication, via whispers through bars, a snatched word at the bathing trough or tapping through cell walls to keep him sane and socialized. And while he may be breathing real air, the environment outside his cell is fully as toxic and potentially lethal as the vacuum of space—yet Fontaine, like Dr. Stone, has to brave it in order to get home. Through whatever magnificent alchemy Bresson perfected during his career, he communicates a sense of immediacy, urgency and realism without ever stooping so low as to give us obvious emotional cues in terms of performance. It’s a pared-back, spartan, but unbelievably compelling work of genius, heightened by Bressonian hallmarks like a fascination with hands, a deep respect for character conveyed through action, the expressive use of offscreen sound and camerawork of such fluidity and grace that it occasionally stops your heart. So many of these elements were overtly embraced by Cuarón for “Gravity”—embraced, homaged and then repurposed into something new and totally different. Ordinarily to reference the great Bresson at the height of his powers would be a terrible act of hubris, but it’s mark of just how good “Gravity” is that, while it does unashamedly deal much more in thrills and shocks, it is not diminished by the comparison.
On multiple occasions, Cuarón has cited Steven Spielberg's "Duel" as a major inspiration for "Gravity," and it's easy to see why: Cuarón borrowed the rhythm of "Duel" for his film, a structure that shares less resemblance to a traditional three-act narrative than to a theme park ride like Space Mountain. Both films feature a single character, who has to overcome incredible odds to get out alive. In the case of "Duel," that single character is a traveling salesman played by Dennis Weaver, who is menaced by an unseen trucker in a big rig behind him on the road. Since the trucker is never seen, the truck itself becomes anthropomorphic, a monster on the road ready to gobble up Weaver. Like the infinite blackness of space in "Gravity," the unseen trucker becomes something that the audience is able to project into; both are black holes of fear. Like "Gravity," "Duel" is awash in feelings of utter helplessness (and hopelessness); dread permeates every frame. But more importantly, they are both thrillers that actually feel like they were designed by people who regularly ride roller coasters: moments of relative calm feel pregnant with tension because you know, that mere moments later, the car will crest and plummet down another steep series of curves and tight embankments. (Rather like the reverse of Sandra Bullock's situation, it's when Dennis Weaver occasionally leaves his car, that we get to feel relief that the terror might be over. But then he's right back in it and and it all ramps up anew.) The script for "Duel" was written by Richard Matheson, a genre legend who wrote for the original "Twilight Zone" series under Rod Serling and who knew the power of a simple, provocative idea: What if you were terrorized, for no reason, on the road? Or, of course: What if you were left adrift in space?
"Runaway Train" (1985)
At first glance the histrionic acting and B-movie genre trappings of “Runaway Train” may seem to bear little resemblance to the pared-back elegance of Cuarón’s approach. But that it’s the second film the director mentioned to feature a prison break (“A Man Escaped” being the other) suddenly made us think that perhaps he partially enivsaged Dr. Stone’s desperate bid for survival more as an escape story—in which the prison she’s trapped within is the wide, wide universe and only by formulating a daring and risky plan can she hope to evade its deadly embrace. So there’s that, but more centrally, no doubt, is the kinetic narrative of "Runaway Train" once it’s actually aboard the titular brakeless train, and the inhospitality of the frozen terrain through which it hurtles. The story, based originally on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, follows two escaped convicts (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts trying to out-crazy each other) and a female railway employee (Rebecca de Mornay), the only occupants of a hijacked train after the engineer dies. Unable to stop the train, which ploughs through everything it meets always gathering speed, the trio have to work out a plan to work their way to the lead engine and empty the fuel tank, a bid partially thwarted by the very design of the locomotive itself. And it’s here that there’s perhaps the closest thematic parallel with “Gravity”: the drama is heightened by the technical, practical details of the technology and the intricate physical difficulties they present in our protagonists’ bid to survive. Sadly, with rather too much time spent on the interpersonal drama of ever-escalating noisiness of unbelievability between the three on the train, and on frequent cutaways to harried controllers shouting into their telephones, the tension of the premise is too often jettisoned in favor of melodrama, among characters who lurch and snarl from one cliché to the next. However, approach it as a high-octane, but largely daft, overacted thriller (director Andrey Konchalovski’s biggest subsequent hit would be “Tango and Cash” if that gives you any idea) and it’s enjoyable enough, if maybe not wholly deserving of the cult status it now enjoys.